‘Firefighter’ vs ‘fireman’: are women really put off by semantics?

Dany Cotton, the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, is spearheading a campaign to ask people not to use the word ‘fireman’. This ‘outdated’ expression is discouraging women and girls from becoming firefighters, she argues. She suggests using firefighter instead.

But are women considering a life-threatening, heroic career, one that involves strenuous mental and physical endurance, really being put off by semantics? I don’t think so. Clearly it didn’t stop Cotton from joining and rising up the ranks. And if someone was that bothered by it, they’d hardly have the mental fortitude to do the job.

Women have worked in the fire service since the 1980s. It’s true that they make up only a small proportion of firefighters – between four to six per cent, depending on the region. But a lot of this is likely down to the nature of the job. Being a firefighter requires impressive levels of physical strength and endurance.

Does this mean that women aren’t up to the job? Of course not. But it is quite plausible that many simply don’t fancy it, just as tens of millions of men don’t.

It doesn’t matter if firefighters are male or female – all that matters is their ability to do the job and save lives. If Cotton wants to encourage more women to join the fire brigade, good for her. But let’s not pretend that brave would-be firewomen would give two hoots about such semantics.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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